The Allure of Science

If the wonders of science have always captured your imagination, a scholarship with A*STAR might be your perfect gateway to explore the boundless scientific realms, as scholars Pua Khian Hong and Gladia Chork will tell you.

By Lim Yan Wen

Not everyone is cut out for a career in doing scientific research. But guided by a fervent passion for science, a proactive attitude and an inquiring mind, a career in research can be a fulfilling one.

Just ask Pua Khian Hong – the 24-year-old scholar with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) is currently serving a one-year attachment with the Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN). The bespectacled young man graduated in May 2009 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with a double major in Biochemistry and Chemistry.

Demystifying Life
Khian Hong's love affair with biochemistry started from young. “I've always been fascinated by the molecular processes that are life-giving, and the idea of demystifying life is very interesting,” says the Victoria Junior College alumnus, whose interests lie at a crossroad between biology and chemistry.

Khian Hong is on A*STAR's National Science Scholarship (NSS), which funds undergraduate studies at top overseas universities in Biomedical Sciences, Physical Sciences and Engineering disciplines. The scholarship provides opportunities to work in some of the world’s best research institutes (RIs).

The NSS comes with a 6-year bond, and his one-year attachment now will count toward the completion of this bond. Khian Hong will pursue his doctorate degree thereafter, and serve another five years with A*STAR after getting his PhD.

Khian Hong first found out about the scholarship from teachers and scholarship fairs in junior college. His brief attachment with the Genome Institute of Singapore also aided his decision-making, as he realised that contrary to popular perception, scientific research is far from boring.

The Overseas Experience
After spending three years in the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which he chose based on its reputable Biochemistry department and advice from seniors, Khian Hong feels the experiences have been invaluable. “Some of the advantages include broadening one's perspectives, learning from intercultural exchanges, and the opportunities to travel around and to network with fellow researchers,” says Khian Hong. He acknowledges that being away from his family was quite difficult, but feels that it helped him to toughen up and become more self-reliant.

Gladia Chork Hotan, another A*STAR scholar who is pursuing a degree in Physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), sees studying overseas as a great way to meet people from different cultures. “I don't think Singaporeans are at a disadvantage when it comes to studying overseas, because our educational foundations are quite solid,” says the 19-year-old.

Gladia, who graduated from Temasek Junior College's Integrated Programme, Temasek Academy (TA), decided that Physics was her calling after being inspired by a teacher. “He taught me to patiently think through physics problems, and in the process of doing so, I realised that physics really is magical!” she says.

The TA not only inspired her passion in the sciences, but also gave her the tools to pursue it. “The TA Programme really trained me to work independently and to ask questions, both of which seem to be crucial if you want to benefit from lessons in the US,” Gladia reflects. She found out about the NSS during her first year in the TA, which is the equivalent of secondary three in mainstream schools. It was then that she decided to work towards it as a career option.

The Tools to Excel
Pursuing Physics at Caltech has given Gladia more than just academic education. The college is receptive and helpful towards international students, and that has helped Gladia to settle in. Along the way, she has also learned other things. “I've become more patient at working through problems, and will definitely need this patience and systematic way of thinking in my research career in the future,” says Gladia.

Despite being a freshman, Gladia already knows what she wants with A*STAR. “I hope to join IHPC (Institute of High Performance Computing) as an engineer. I found its Brain-Machine Interface project to be particularly exciting, and it's one of the reasons I decided on this scholarship,” shares Gladia, citing one of the RIs under A*STAR.

Meanwhile, Khian Hong's overseas experience was enhanced by his involvement in the Biochemistry department's Peer Mentoring Scheme, where he was asked by his college advisor to guide some of his peers after he had taken the course. This perhaps fuelled his desire to pursue both research and teaching in the future, after he completes his doctorate studies. “I found that I really enjoy teaching, so I'll definitely consider entering academia as well,” Khian Hong says.

“Right now, I'm doing research on the binding affinity of MHC (major histocompatibility complex) molecules with various antigenic peptides to come up with an algorithm which can provide an accurate method for identifying immunogenic peptides. We are exploring the possibility of developing personalised vaccines,” describes Khian Hong about his current attachment with SIgN.

Forging Ahead
Beyond scientific research, Khian Hong is also involved in other aspects of A*STAR's activities as well, such as the 58th Meeting of the ASEAN Committee on Science and Technology and the Biomedical International Advisory Council meetings.

With the government investing more money and resources into the biomedical sciences, a career with A*STAR is definitely a promising one that offers the perfect gateway into the field of science. “It's encouraging to know that the government is pumping more money into this. I see a future,” predicts Khian Hong.

Khian Hong had to go through three rounds of interviews before he was awarded the scholarship, including a panel interview, an interactive session involving giving impromptu speeches, and a meeting with then A*STAR chairman, Mr Philip Yeo. “I think I demonstrated that I have the passion and aptitude for science. Being pro-active in science symposiums and my attachment experiences also gave me a taste of what research is like,” replies Khian Hong when asked why he thinks he made it through the selection process.

For potential scholars, Gladia reckons passion is essential: “I think you really need a passion for the subject you're studying, and the research field you want to go into. It's what keeps us going.”

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